Does Denmark Have a Race Problem?
I grew up in the Whiskeybelt, north of Copenhagen. On Friday afternoons in spring, old women in mink coats strolled along the park and Filipino nannies wheeled toddlers around. There was kartoffelsalat, and øllebrød, and Disney Sjov på DR1, and before bed we would steal the salted licorice Mom kept in the cabinet and wonder if she’d ever notice. My childhood could have been a Danish Norman Rockwell painting (Nordmand Stenbrønd?). Except, Norman Rockwell never painted two Asian kids with white parents.
I was adopted from a South Korean town called Masan when I was three months old. I was two when we flew to Seoul to adopt my little sister. That’s the full extent of my Asian heritage, really. I’ve never “felt” Asian (whatever that means). As a kid, my race was a weird concept to wrap my head around: that I was treated as different though I’d never felt that way; that someone could dislike or dismiss me based on something as arbitrary as the shape of my eyes. Particularly in primary school, where kids roam unbridled by political correctness or human decency. Every day was like a fucking chapter of Lord of the Flies. I used to think that if Satan felt like Hell needed a re-brand, Kildegård Privatskole would be the perfect name. I was eight the first time I got beat up. He was a few years older than me, twelve years old, I think. I’d never talked to him before. He slid my face along the asphalt and broke my glasses and asked me how I was gonna see out of my chink eyes now. When my parents informed the administration, they were politely told that racism was not a factor at Kildegård Privatskole, and to please stop pestering them. I was nine when I moved to Copenhagen International School.
And there, I was happy. There were children from America, and China, and Germany, and there were even a few Danish kids, too. My mother told me, on the way to my first day at school, that if anyone tried to bully me because of my race, all the other Asian kids would come to my defense. And though, sadly, I never witnessed a WestSide Story-style racial gang war between toddlers, I was never bullied. I learnt that it was okay to be Asian, to look different. I learnt that being Asian and being Danish were not mutually exclusive. I was happy. I was sheltered.
A few years later, an acquaintance from a nearby Danish gymnasium (high school) assured me that, no, racism didn’t exist at his school: he went on to tell me about the sole black kid in his class, named “The Nigger” by his fellow classmates, and explained very matter-of-factly to me that he was “a person, like anyone else.” The irony, of course, being that people are usually called by their first names, not a racial slur. It made me really sad to think of that kid, having to accept being debased like that on a daily basis. There was no one who could relate to him, no one willing to put their neck out and go against the grain for him. They didn’t see anything wrong with it.They’d told themselves that “Oh, no, he’s one of us, even if he is black,” and felt that was good enough for them to treat him as they pleased. Maybe he’d even convinced himself of the same. I got sadder just thinking about it.
People of minority descent confront this sentiment daily. If we object, if we ask people not to address us in a disrespectful manner, we’re told to grow a sense of humor and that we’re being oversensitive. We’re told that political correctness is one of the evils in society, supposedly created by Satan and globalization-crazed Americans to enslave us and rob us of our freedom to insult who we want. We’re told that, since there is no ill intent behind racial comments, it’s our fault if we happen to find them offensive.
In country where 90% of the population is of Danish ancestry, the perspectives of ethnic and racial minorities are largely unheard, and not well understood. The problems that we, the minorities, face are often marginalized or ignored. Our concerns about race are often brushed aside or attributed to oversensitivity on our part. But the fact is that racial minorities do experience life from a different point of view. We are reminded of our “otherness” every time we step into a room. Being different is a decision made by others on our behalf. And there’s a great sense of frustration in being defined and categorized as an “other” when you’re not.
I’ve been told that if I have a problem with race, it’s my own fault, that it’s all in my head. I have been told this exclusively by white people. The reason is obvious, and, at heart, no fault of theirs. They can’t relate to those frustrations, because their race is invisible to them. They’ve never been told they did not belong because of how their eyes looked. They don’t hear racial remarks slung at them on a night out. Discrimination and microaggressions are terms they read about in textbooks, not experience on a day-to-day basis. The alienation and frustration that comes with being non-white in Copenhagen is inaccessible to them. On a rational level, yes, I think most people can understand the pain that casual and overt racism causes. But to empathize is another matter entirely, and the unfortunate fact is that in general the racial majority in Denmark has no way of relating to that kind of pain, nor an inclination to understand it.
The issue is further exacerbated by a cultural acceptance of casual racism. Our culture has never been particularly sensitive to race and is at times downright hostile to the idea of political correctness. We still bemoan the death of our right to call chocolate-coated marshmallow treats “Niggerballs,” as if it were some kind of divine right bestowed upon us by the Goddess of Free Speech. There exists a pervading sense in our culture that if there is no ill intent behind a slur, it cannot be construed as disrespectful: that it is a conscious choice to be offended. It seems to be a memetic thought, contagious because it absolves the hegemony from guilt and responsibility. It is victim-blaming nonsense, and, moreover, a self-righteous and arrogant notion. This kind of willful insensitivity towards minorities allows racism to be tacitly present in our culture.
I would like to close by saying that my intent is not to demonize Danish culture, nor am I trying to victimize myself. These are simply the facts of living as a minority in a historically racially homogeneous society. Part of living as a minority in Copenhagen is learning to accept that I will be subjected to ignorant behavior at times, and that few people will be able to understand why it upsets me. I’ve had to learn not to get jaded, learn to understand and accept where that ignorance comes from, learn to remind myself of the Danes that do understand. Most importantly, I’ve come to realize that ignorance is not always an expression of malicious intent. In fact, the opposite usually seems to be the case. It took me almost a decade to recognize that I could be both Danish and foreign-looking: it would be unfair of me to expect the same of others. But, it sure would be nice.